Javelin and cricket: An old love story
The similar biomechanics of cricket and javelin means that several athletes have transitioned from one to the other - Arshad Nadeem, Josh Hazlewood, Roger Binny etc. There was even a disastrous 'javelin experiment' to produce India's fastest bowler in the IPL around 15 years ago.
The Indian subcontinent won a total of two medals at the 2023 World Athletics Championships out of the 148 on offer - India's Neeraj Chopra won gold and Pakistan's Arshad Nadeem won silver in the javelin throw final. Even the 5th and 6th best throwers in the world, on proof of Sunday's final, were from India.
How come two cricket-crazy countries have come to stand atop an Athletics podium and dominated a field usually left to burly Europeans?
The answer may lie not in accepting the javelin revolution as an aberration, but in embracing how the biomechanics of javelin throwing is very similar to cricket, something which is sociologically ingrained in children growing up in the subcontinent.
Javelin throwers and cricketers
DP Manu, one of the Indian javelin throwers in the final on Sunday, was a fast bowler in his school team in Karnataka.
Even Arshad Nadeem, the silver medallist from Pakistan, was a cricket all-rounder before he switched to athletics as it would be less time-consuming and would allow him more time to work in the cotton fields his village is famous for.
"He was very athletic and strong but he couldn't get enough time for cricket although he was a very good all-rounder. I advised him to take up athletics as it consumed less time," Arshad Nadeem's brother Afzal had said.
The switch from cricket to javelin is something seen in other cricket-playing nations too. The 2022 javelin world champion Anderson Peters of Grenada, who Neeraj lost to last year, was an aspiring fast bowler before he deciced to use his 'pelting' skills to other use.
"I liked cricket. I was a fast bowler. I just liked the idea of throwing the ball, I felt I could bowl it so fast that the batsman can't even see it. I would always aim to throw a 90 mph ball," Peters had told World Athletics.
South African javelin thrower Sunette Viljoen, 2016 Olympics silver medallist and 2011 World Championships silver medallist, played 17 ODIs for her country between 2000 and 2002 before making the switch. At the age of 37, she even made a return to domestic cricket, but failed to return to the national team.
Current South African international Tazmin Brits would never have played cricket had it not been for a car accident that derailed her 2012 Olympics hopes in javelin throw. She had been a World Youth Athletics Championships gold medallist in 2007. Hayley Mathews, the leading star of the current West Indies team and a member of the Mumbai Indians WPL team, was a medal-winning javelin thrower for Barbados in the Caribbean Games before making her cricket debut.
Several men's international cricketers - mostly fast bowlers and outfield fielders - have a javelin past in common. Australian fast bowler Josh Hazlewood, legendary South African fielder Fannie de Villiers and legendary Australian quick Jeff Thomson were all javelin champions in their schooldays.
1983 World Cup winner Roger Binny held the Indian national record for boys' javelin throw in the 1970s before making the switch to cricket. Current Indian women's team cricketer Kiran Navgire won javelin medals for Maharashtra before she decided she liked whacking balls better.
The experiment to produce 'the fastest bowler India never had'
The similarity between fast bowling and javelin throwing is not something that has been freshly discovered. At one point, one very unfortunate experiment was also carried out in the quest for uncovering 'the fastest bowler India never had' - Atul Sharma.
An IPL squad member for Rajasthan Royals, Atul Sharma had trained 'like a javelin thrower and a boxer' to become an ultra-fast bowler. He was known to effortlessly touch speeds of 160 kph, with a unique bowling action which involved turning sideways like a javelin thrower 20 metres into his 30-metre bowling run-up and releasing the ball without a jump, according to the few who saw him.
“Sideways bowlers (in cricket) will always be faster than front-on bowlers due to the ability to access the hip drive correctly. This is why you see javelin throwers coming in to attack their throw sideways. This creates a stretch reflex position, which is desirable for maximising power," said English cricket coach Ian Pont, one of the main characters in this experiment, who said he was fascinated by the similarity of biomechanics between cricket and javelin.
On asked how the technique of throwing a 800 gm javelin 90 metres into the air could be the same as throwing a 150 gm cricket ball with a straight arm downwards into the ground, Pont had said, "But the principles are the same. We always knew about hip drive and arm pull as being important, plus keeping the legs driving through to target."
Atul Sharma never played a match for Rajasthan Royals due to a 'shoulder injury' and disappeared without a trace. Some YouTube videos claim he is a club cricketer in Ranchi, some claim he is a club cricketer in the USA.
Why Neeraj Chopra is like Michael Holding
The Atul Sharma experiment to introduce javelin techniques in cricket might have failed, but a few years later, when a javelin revolution was being harnessed in India, there was some cricket lexicon in use.
Neeraj Chopra's former coach the late Gary Calvert, who guided him to the gold medal in the 2016 U20 World Championships, had said Neeraj was special because he had something in common with the fearsome West Indies fast bowlers of the 1970s and 80s.
"Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and all these really, really quick bowlers. Michael Holding is a good example. He was a 400m runner but he kept his way back. So in the javelin, if you can delay the arm and not use it…..There’s only a maximum distance you can throw with the arm but if you delay, you get this almighty delay in the end. Neeraj has got that whip," he had told The Indian Express.
Neeraj had joked once that if cricket allowed bowlers to bend their arms, he would consider trying to get an IPL contract once his javelin career is done. Michael Holding would probably not approve as his dislike for the IPL is as fearsome as his bowling action from 40 years ago, but the likes of Josh Hazlewood, Hayley Mathews and Roger Binny would, having made the same transition themselves.